AIN Blog: The FAA Is Out of Control

 - July 8, 2014, 7:39 PM
It's time for the sun to set on the FAA paperwork inertia that is grounding some perfectly airworthy jets. (Photo: Matt Thurber)

This has got to stop. We all know that FAA inspectors at the Flight Standards District Office (FSDO) level are overworked and that FAA regulations, policies, procedures and programs impose impossible requirements on agency personnel. But when a drop-dead simple piece of paperwork that needs an approval signature hits the desk and gets delayed for some obscure confounded reason, causing the grounding of a multimillion-dollar jet, well, this simply has got to stop.

Here’s the story, from a flight department director. I’ll call him “Paul,” who wisely chose to remain anonymous because he’s afraid that any further pressure on FAA personnel will result in more delays. According to Paul, he proactively planned to prepare his company’s two jets for the ADS-B OUT mandate, which affects U.S. airspace starting Jan. 1, 2020. He found that the first step needed is to upgrade the dual flight management systems (FMS) in the jets to Waas-compliant units, after which adding ADS-B OUT-compliant transponders would be a relatively simple job. The reason he went ahead with the FMS upgrade now is because a timely discount offered by the avionics manufacturer is saving his company tens of thousands of dollars. And he feels that getting ready for ADS-B now will be far better for his company than waiting until the last minute, not to mention adding the benefits of being able to fly Waas-LPV approaches. 

So Paul went ahead and scheduled the FMS upgrade through his local factory service center. This FMS upgrade is also relatively simple, in that it is covered by a factory service bulletin, so no supplemental type certificate (STC) is involved. Avionics upgrades don’t get much easier than this.

Six weeks before the scheduled installation, Paul informed his FSDO inspectors of his plans. He was told that he would need all of the FAA letters of authorization (LOAs) that apply reissued to reflect the new FMS. There are four LOAs that apply in Paul’s operation, including one for RVSM operations plus one for navigation equipment in terminal and en route airspace, another for RNP 0.4 and another for one of the jets for North Atlantic operations. Basically, this is just a matter of removing the old FMS designation in these LOAs and replacing that with the new FMS type. This is simple paperwork. It should be a no-brainer, right?

Nope. As Paul put it, “It opened a can of worms. We’re just trying to be good citizens and get this stuff done so we’re ahead of the power curve.”

For some reason, no one at the FSDO knows why—and Paul does not fault anyone at the FSDO—the LOA change got booted up to the FAA regional office. But now this simple, simple change must be signed off by a regional FAA person, someone who is farther from the action at the FSDO level and might not understand how simple this change is or how it can cause expensive jets to be grounded.

As of July 7, Paul’s first upgraded jet had been on the ground for 3.5 weeks. He worries that his boss is going to start to wonder if he, Paul, made the right decision. His company has a big trip coming up where both airplanes are needed. And he cannot fly the upgraded jet because the FAA will not sign off on an already approved modification in which the lack of paperwork has no effect whatsoever on safety.

“I don’t know what else I could have done,” Paul reflected. “I gave the FAA six weeks’ notice. When I try to explain it to my boss, who has been very understanding, it makes me look almost incompetent: ‘What do you mean the plane’s just sitting there?’”

It comes as no surprise to hear about this problem because the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Inspector General recently released a study that points to the lack of FAA resources to handle applications for certificates for repair stations, charter operations and flight schools. An amazing 138 certificate applications are delayed more than three years; these are businesses that people want to launch that will employ people, buy fuel, generate aircraft sales and possibly help aviation grow. While I agree that the FAA is understaffed, why doesn’t anyone look more deeply into this problem, where piles of LOA requests are likely causing delays in these important certificate applications? The real rub is that there is no safety need for all these LOAs. 

RVSM is a proven and perfectly adequate system on its own. New airplanes come with RVSM equipment built in, most older airplanes already comply and pilots know how to fly in RVSM airspace. But every time an airplane is sold or a registration number changes, the RVSM paperwork has to go back to the FAA to get rubber-stamped. And this process can take weeks, sometimes months, because the paperwork sits on a pile amongst other LOAs and certificate applications. 

What is the FAA’s job? To help improve aviation safety? How can FAA inspectors assist with safety if they are buried in their offices all day under mounds of useless paperwork? Does anyone in FAA leadership understand that they will not have jobs if we all stop flying because our paperwork is not moving? 

Can anything be done about this? 

Yes, but unfortunately the FAA does not respond to anything other than massive pressure from members of Congress - no way to run a safety agency. Most FAA people understand what it takes to run a safe aviation industry and they would love to spend more time on genuine safety issues, not useless paperwork. 

We need to get rid of all these LOAs. They are not necessary and they clog the system. When an ordinary upgrade that is already approved is completed, logbooks signed, testing done, then the aircraft can fly, and if the FAA wants to mess around with changing a few words on a few pieces of paper, have at it, but for the sake of sanity, do not ground a perfectly good aircraft.



And the FAA and others wonder why operators and GA owners are not getting the required equipment for this now!

Why would the FAA do anything for us?  They have no mandate to work for us.  They make it very clear that we are here to give then a job for life.  Not to expect them to do anything for us.  It took a very powerful senator to call the FAA Administrator to get a RVSM approval from the South Florida FSDO on a new Premier.  Then they got the N# wrong and most everything after that wrong on the LOA.  It was clear that they had not even read the application after three months. 

I suggest that none of us comply with ADS-B.  They will have no choice but to change their mandate.

ADS-B LOA only required if flying outside CONUS. ADS-B and CPDLC currently requires Headquarters concurrance. That is where the delay seems to be. Also, were the applications for the LOA complete and correct and in accordance with the 8900.1 guidance or were revisions by the operator required which slowed down the approval? Please don't blame the FSDO inspectors, they are following their guidance (8900.1). As an ICAO country, the FAA is just trying to comply with ICAO requirements. Blame ICAO!

We added an aircraft back in January.  This process only took a month as the FSDO office has a policy of not reviewing submissions for up to 30 days from the date they were dropped off.  They will NOT acknowledge anything sent via electronic means, i.e. email, etc.  It has to be hard copies.  Whatever happened to the Paperwork Reduction Act?  On a note - the FSDO will NOT print anything submitted via electronic mean either.

We still do not have an approved MEL and now it has been 8 months since we submitted it.  The inspectors reviewing this document stop their review at every mistake, send it back, and then wait the full 30 days prior to reviewing it again.  This has gone back and forth over 6 times.

We have had a change to our Operation Specifications in to the FSDO for over a year requesting additional Areas of Operations with absolutely nothing being done about it.

This is ridiculous.

Now approvable at the FSDO/CHDO level! Changed last week.

Contact your elected officials in D.C. or the NSA, they are the only part of our government that listens!

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